Five Christmas songs to improve your German language skills

Want to feel more festive while also improving your German? Writer Sarah Magill digs out some of the most beautiful (and fun) German-language Christmas carols.

A choir singing at the opening of the Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt in 2019.
A choir singing at the opening of the Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt in 2019. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Karmann

German Christmas songs (Weihnachtslieder) have a very long tradition – with some of the songs sung today having their origins in the Middle Ages.

Like their English language counterparts, there are a few traditional German Christmas songs which can be heard everywhere during the festive season and which are sung every year, without fail on Heiligabend (Christmas Eve).

Here are five of the nation’s favourite Christmas songs, which will not only get you in a christmassy mood, but will also broaden your German vocabulary.

READ ALSO: Seven classic German Christmas traditions still taking place in the pandemic

1. Stille Nacht

You may be familiar with the English adaptation of this carol – “Silent Night” – but the original version comes from the city of Oberndorf bei Salzburg in Austria. 

On December 24th, 1818, the assistant priest of the church of St. Nicola, Josef Mohr, presented the organist Franz Gruber with a poem called Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht! (“Silent Night! Holy Night!”) and the two sang the song for the first time at the Christmas mass.

The Silent Night chapel in Oberndorf near Salzburg. Photo:picture alliance / Eva-Maria Repolusk/SalzburgerLand Tourismus/dpa-tmn | Eva-Maria Repolusk

Written just after the Napoleonic wars, the text of Stille Nacht uses imagery of peace and calm, and has played an important role in times of war throughout its 200-year history: it was sung and performed in public during the First World War and also during the Second World War. 

German version

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht!

Alles schläft, einsam wacht

Nur das traute, hochheilige Paar.

Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,

Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh,

Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh.

English version

Silent night, holy night!

All sleeps, lonely wakes

Only the happy, sacred couple.

Sweet boy with curly hair,

Sleep in heavenly peace,

Sleep in heavenly peace.

The song has since been translated into more than 300 languages and dialects around the globe.

2. O Tannenbaum

Another German language original which has found its way into the English canon of Christmas carols, O Tannenbaum (“Oh Christmas Tree”) was originally a sad love song. The text was written by Potsdam scholar August Zarnack in 1820 to an already existing melody (“Long live the journeyman carpenter”) and is written from the perspective of a betrayed lover who is praising the constancy of the conifer tree:

German version

O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
wie grün sind deine Blätter! 

O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
wie grün sind deine Blätter!

Du grünst nicht nur zur Sommerszeit,
nein, auch im Winter, wenn es schneit.
O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
wie grün sind deine Blätter!

English version

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree
How green are your branches!
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree
How green are your branches!

You’re not just green in summertime,
No, also in winter when it snows,
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree
How green are your branches!

Four years later, Ernst Anschütz took the successful song and, retaining the first verse, turned it into a cheerful Christmas carol for children, which has grown in popularity ever since.

Sunlit conifers on the slopes of the Black Forest. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Philipp von Ditfurth

3. O du fröhliche

O du fröhliche (“Oh you joyful”) is one of the best-known German-language Christmas carols. Its melody is based on the Sicilian Marian carol O sanctissima and the text of the first of three stanzas was written by the Weimar “orphan father” Johannes Daniel Falk.

Another text composed just after the Napoleonic wars, this song was written by Johannes Daniel Falk for the war orphans who were in the care of him and his wife Caroline. Around 1815, he wrote a song for these children: o du fröhliche and, to this day, many people all over the world sing it, especially on Christmas Eve. 

German version

O du fröhliche, o du selige,

Gnadenbringende Weihnachtszeit!

Welt ging verloren,

Christ ist geboren:

Freue, freue dich, o Christenheit!

English version

O merry, O blessed, 

Merry Christmas time!

The world was lost,

Christ is born:

Rejoice, rejoice, O Christendom!

READ ALSO: Ten ways to celebrate Christmas like a German

4. Leise rieselt der Schnee

The Christmas song Leise rieselt der Schnee (“Quietly trickles the snow”) is traditionally sung throughout Advent in Germany. It was written and composed by the Protestant pastor Eduard Ebel in 1895 and is now one of the nation’s most popular Christmas songs.

The text is is packed with beautiful imagery of a snowy landscape:

German version

Leise rieselt der Schnee
Still und starr ruht der See
Weihnachtlich glänzet der Wald
Freue Dich, Christkind kommt bald

English version

Quietly trickles the snow

Still and rigid rests the lake

Christmas shines in the forest

Rejoice, Christ Child is coming soon

5. In der Weihnachtbäckerei

A much more modern Christmas song, in der Weihnachtsbäckerei (“in the Christmas bakery”) describes what’s going on behind the scenes in preparation of German sweet seasonal treats. 

It’s a great song for practising your culinary skills, as it reads like a recipe for making Plätzchen (traditional German Christmas cookies). 

A child cuts out cookies in Hamburg, 2018. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Axel Heimken

The song’s composer and writer,  Rolf Zuckowski, made up the song in 1986 while driving home to his family who were making Christmas cookies. When he arrived home, the song was ready and his three-year-old son immediately sang the new song on his way to bed.

German version

In der Weihnachtsbäckerei
Gibt es manche Leckerei
Zwischen Mehl und Milch
Macht so mancher Knilch
Eine riesengroße Kleckerei
In der Weihnachtsbäckerei
In der Weihnachtsbäckerei 

Brauchen wir nicht Schokolade
Zucker, Nüsse und Succade
Und ein bisschen Zimt?
Das stimmt

Butter, Mehl und Milch verrühren
Zwischendurch einmal probieren
Und dann kommt das Ei (pass auf)

English version

In the Christmas bakery

There are many treats

Between flour and milk

Many a lout makes

A huge mess

In the Christmas bakery

In the Christmas bakery

Don’t we need chocolate

Sugar, nuts and succade

And a little bit of cinnamon?

That’s right

Mix butter, flour and milk

Taste in between

And then comes the egg (watch out)

Too late!

READ ALSO: German Advent word of the day: Die Plätzchen

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8 TV shows you should watch to learn about Austrian culture

If you want to learn about Austrian culture, forget the classroom - the television is where the true lessons are learned. Here are eight shows you should watch to learn about Austrian culture.

8 TV shows you should watch to learn about Austrian culture

You’re immensely curious about Austrian culture, but you’re also looking for that next bingeable series to curl up to on the couch. 

Whether you’re a local newcomer wanting to experience classic Austrian television or a global citizen just hoping to learn something new, look no further. 

One of these shows is bound to capture your intrigue—and you might even learn some German along the way.

What the Austrian locals are watching

Here are some quintessential shows for viewers with some German under their belt.

1. Schnell ermittelt: classic Austrian “Krimi”

No list of Austrian television would be complete without at least one “Krimi”, which is an entire genre of books, films and shows that revolve around fictional crime stories, solved over the course of the plot.

Schnell ermittelt, German for “quickly investigated,” follows chief inspector Angelika Schnell of the Vienna homicide department as she and her team solve murder mysteries with often unconventional methods.

Full of laughs and thrills, this sixty-episode series was described by Austrian newspaper Der Standard as “CSI in good Viennese dialect.”

COMPARE: Which is Austria’s best streaming service?

2. Vorstadtwieber: comedy-drama set in posh Vienna

One of the most successful shows on Austrian television, Vorstadtweiber (“Suburban Women”) has just finished airing its sixth and final season.

Modelled after the US’ Desperate Housewives, this drama-packed satire of upper-class Austria leads viewers behind the shiny facade of Vienna’s suburban elite to the web of secrets, corruption, and lies surrounding five women bent on orchestrating their own financial liberation.

3. Braunschlag: bleak comedy in rural Austria

Out of the big city and into the fictional Lower Austrian village of “Braunschlag,” this critically acclaimed series from 2012 will give you a deeper understanding of Austria’s varying regions and dialects while you laugh along to its absurdist humour.

In order to bring an influx of business to his bankrupt town, the mayor of Braunschlag fakes a supernatural apparition of the Virgin Mary, but the lie runs quickly out of hand, devolving into a crazed cascade of sarcasm and greed that culminates in just eight episodes.

Multicultural understanding

For Austrian residents interested in ethnicity and human rights, consider this weekly update geared toward the country’s cultures in the minority.

READ MORE: 11 maps that help you understand Austria today

4. Heimat, fremde Heimat: weekly inclusion “magazine”

The odd one out on our list, Heimat, fremde Heimat (“Homeland, foreign homeland”) isn’t a bingeworthy serial, but rather an informative weekly TV program focused on minority and immigrant groups in Austria.

In production since 1989, the show covers such topics as human rights, ethnic issues, cultural diversity and coexistence in German and several other languages.

Viewers watching the broadcast on television will have access to subtitles on the ORF Teletext Deaf Service.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

An English-friendly look at Austrian culture

For anyone who wants to get a glimpse without being tossed into the deep end of a new language, these shows offer an English language option.

Austrian clichés: How true are these ten stereotypes?

5. Vienna Blood: period crime drama

Set in 1900s Vienna but produced completely in English, this series depicts a rich, fictionalised Austrian past that goes down easy for English-speakers—if they can handle the psychological twists and turns of a thrilling crime-solver.

Currently in its third season, Vienna Blood follows medical student Max Liebermann and detective Oskar Rheinhardt as they investigate harrowing murders in famous Viennese locales, including the state opera house, the natural history museum, traditional cafés and Burggarten Park.

6. Kitz: teen soap-opera set in a ski resort town

In a contemporary narrative aimed at international youth, this 2021 teen soap shines for its exaggerated drama and picturesque Austrian landscapes, and if that’s all you’re looking for, stop here.

Set in the Tyrolean ski resort town of Kitzbühel, the story centres around nineteen-year-old waiter Lisi Madlmeyer and the gilded Munich vacationers who come for a visit.

With a range of language dubs and subtitles, this show provides a look into Austria’s ski resort tradition, even if the accents and local flavour don’t quite match up.

Cash and Schnapps: A guide to visiting pubs and cafes in Austria

7. Freud: fictionalised period thriller

If it isn’t clear by now, Austrians love to watch a criminal mystery unfold on television. In this dark 2020 crime series, famed Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud is reimagined as a drugged-up Viennese Sherlock Holmes whose only path to solving a warped criminal conspiracy is through the use of his psychoanalytic prowess.

Available with English subtitles, Freud is a macabre trip through 1880s Vienna, with a fair share of visions, nightmares and bare skin.

8. The Empress: historical drama (Coming in 2022)

Viewers looking for a more accurate depiction of Austrian history on television will have to wait—but not for long.

Slotted for a 2022 spring release and rumoured to be Austria’s answer to the UK’s international hit The Crown, The Empress (working title) is set to depict the early days of one of Austria’s most celebrated figures: Duchess Elisabeth of Bavaria, or “Sisi,” as she is called, alongside her husband-to-be, Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph I. If the title and news release are any indication, the show will likely offer an English-language option.

So turn on the TV, settle in and get ready to learn about Austrian culture the easy way—and if we missed a show that gave you a better understanding of Austria, leave us a comment below.